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Transform Your 2D Characters and VFX into Stunning Animated Videos

This story is featured in Creativebloq.
See the article:

I am Declan Walsh from Dex Art.  I have been an animator of special effects for a long time. I started out in Sullivan Bluth Studios in Ireland, creating animated special effects for Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. I moved to Arizona where I worked as a director for 20th Century Fox animation, creating titles like Anastasia and Titan AE, then later I worked on projects for Disney, Marvel, Star Wars games etc.

But back when I started, everything was animated on paper and transferred to cell and painted. It was a huge task to create even a few seconds of animation.
It would have been impossible back then to do what we can do now with computers. With software such as Cartoon Animator 4.5, it allows everyone to be an animator. This software gives you your own studio from your laptop or PC, no matter where you are in the world. 

But now, with the new addition of Cartoon Animator 4.5, Reallusion has extended the capabilities of the software and has broken ground into a very exciting time in animation once again with transparent video compositing.

Why not check out my content store at Reallusion.  You’ll find it under DexArt. There you will find all my animated EFX, from water, magic, fire.  Anyway, go and explore, DexArt.

When I was asked to create this animated video and article, I was very excited to explore what transparent video compositing could do and the avenues this would open up for us all using Cartoon Animator 4.5.  So this article will show you my workflow on how to combine 2D animation and VFX with live-action video compositing. 

Importing a Movie Clip

You can import animated video clips straight to Cartoon Animator 4.5. I used this feature to reference the motions of the girl dancing. The video imports like you would any prop and as a prop it has all the attributes of one. However, I was not using the video for lining up or for final output, in this case, it was purely for reference.

Note: This is a great tool for anyone struggling with animating their character motions. With a quick action on your mobile, you can import the video for reference.

The imported video will loop on the timeline so setting the start and end values can help keep the track organized.

Bringing the Character to Animate

I used one of my own characters, Mia.  She’s in the Reallusion store as are thousands of characters and props that you can build your animations with. When you bring in your character it’s always a good idea to have the play headset to one to avoid any animations being created. The character can be placed in front or behind the video and anywhere on the stage to suit your needs.

Let’s take a quick look at the 2D motion key editor.

There are two views that can be used to select bones for animation: the “Image View” and the “Hierarchy View”.  Personally I always use the “Image View” as it makes more sense to my visual personality. 

Each yellow dot represents a corresponding bone on the character. Selecting those turns them blue and the bone on the character also turns blue so you know which bone you are working with.

Using the locks on the hands and feet can help with sliding and griping and can be keyed on and off giving you more control over your character animation.
Before starting an animation I always set a full body key on Frame 1 and then use “selected part” for each key after that. There are times I will set full body keys during an animation if I want to reset the character from a pose and start a new action.
Note: If you use the flip hip like I did, the bone selection is reversed.

Setting Keys and 2D Animation Concepts

The animation starts with broad strokes. It’s always a mistake to try and create a finished piece in one sweep; you end up placing keys all over the timeline and confusing yourself.

So let’s look at some traditional methods. Film passes the gate at 24 frames per second (FPS), that’s one frame of film per second that you can see. Frame speed can be set in Cartoon Animator 4.5 from 1 frame per second to 30 frames per second.
What does this tell us, well it’s all a matter of timing. If you think in footage or feet which is 16 frames of film or in seconds it helps to break down the animation into manageable bites.

Standard keys are set on 1- 9 – 17 – 25 etc. and these are the key poses or extremes. You can also use 1 – 10 – 20 etc., but having an idea of what a movement looks like at these timings can help you have an understanding of the motion before you animate. 

Mia’s hand is up on frame 1 and down on 17. This would be an extreme, the extreme point of the motion. Although not all her body parts will land on these timings, it’s a good practice to move from pose to pose as close as you can at first.

After the main poses are placed I go back and place the breakdowns. The breakdowns are not always a direct smooth motion between the keys. If they are, Cartoon Animator 4.5 takes care of that motion for you. You just have to use the curves to get the motion you desire.      

Once all the keys and breakdowns are set I go in and swap out hand gestures, facial motions, and any other small details you want to place in your animation.

Duplicating the Animation

Cartoon Animator 4.5 has a great feature to save off a character’s animation and reuse it on another character. So if I wanted to have a bunch of characters dancing in this clip I just have to save the animation and drop it onto the new characters in the scene.

Note: Not all characters are rigged or designed the same way so you may have to go in and change out some animation details. So if you are planning this, it’s best to try and have the same structure in the characters.

Transparent Video Compositing

Because I used the girl dancing as a reference for the animation, I don’t need to render her out. I have that clip to work with later. But I do want to render out Mia’s animation. 

Normally I would render out .png files, in this case, 318 of them, and import them into an external program for adding additional glitz and glam. But now we can render a video with transparency, just one file to work with.

But what if I did have other props and characters in the scene? Well, the clever people at Reallusion have included a tick box for that too. Under “Object Sequence” there’s a box for Export into separate files. And this renders out each file into folders. All animation clips are separated and put into one folder and non-animated into another folder.

So you don’t have to go breaking up your renders; it’s all taken care of for you.

Importing Transparent Video into After Effects

Once my renders were done I brought the transparent video into After Effects. When importing you get a dialogue box where the alpha channel has been detected by After Effects. This is interesting because it gives you options on import.

Straight unmatted brings in the video as Reallusion intended.

If you tick the invert alpha box, this gives you a mask of the prop or character you are importing. 

I was very impressed with the quality of the render from Cartoon Animator 4.5. There were no edge problems at all. Usually I would have to use a matte choker to eliminate artifacts on an image, but this came in nice and clean.

EFX Renders

I went back in and rendered out my EFX, fire electricity, pixie dust etc. and because they were movie files, I didn’t have to deal with tons of .png files. It was a lot more straightforward.   I imported these files, in the same way, I did with Mia and lined them up in place. 

There were a few final touches I made like adding a drop shadow in After Effects and lighting the character to match the environment more, and to be honest, the options are endless. 

I found as an EFX guy, I wanted to do so much more and had to hold myself back or this would never have gotten done. I could also imagine so many environments and stories that this could be used for. I feel we have been given the tools to create very high-end 2D animations. Not just for toon environments and interactions but scenarios that the creators of Who Framed Roger Rabbit would have melted a toon for.  

For me, the big takeaway on this project was being able to capture a video, import it into Cartoon Animator 4.5, and use it as a reference for animation.   Rendering out characters and props became organized with fewer files to manage. The ability to add production values that would have been out of reach before this.  

I really hope this is a help, and I have learned so much from this process and look forward to exploring further with Cartoon Animator 4.5.

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